Warehouses Promise Jobs, But What Happens When the Robots Come?
Amazon's orange robots move items all over the company's Tracy fulfillment center, increasing efficiency and helping speed stuff to consumers. (Erasmo Martinez/KQED)
The city of Tracy sits on the edge of the Central Valley, where Interstate 580 meets I-5.
And like a lot of towns in this region, it’s been welcoming the warehousing industry and the jobs that have come with it.
Safeway, Restoration Hardware and lots more big retailers have warehouses in Tracy. But in the age of rapid automation, how long will these jobs last?
Amazon’s fulfillment center in Tracy offers a case study of the effects that robots will have on the future of jobs. While big retailers like Walmart and Target continue to rely mostly on human labor to fulfill customer orders, Amazon has deployed an army of robots to help with the task in Tracy.
The Amazon facility in Tracy is huge at about 1 million square feet. And the best way to describe the experience inside? It’s like walking through a ginormous machine.
For one thing, it’s really loud.
“It’s the conveyance,” said Ashley Robinson, an Amazon spokeswoman. I could barely hear her above the noise. What she calls conveyance, most people know as conveyor belts.
“We’ve got miles of conveyance here in this facility,” Robinson said.
Three stories of conveyor belts move an endless stream of yellow plastic boxes carrying customers' stuff.
“They’re heading toward the pack stations, where they’ll be packed, a label supplied and sent out to the loading dock,” Robinson said.
At a lot of warehouses, moving things is mostly a human job, but here it’s mostly been automated. And while conveyor belts are an old technology, Robinson said, “It’s all part of the symphony of Amazon fulfillment.”
The conductor of that symphony? A computer. It keeps track of everything that comes in and out of the warehouse. Then it conducts the conveyor belts, humans and robots to get you, the consumer, that stuff as quickly as possible.
Amazon's robots are hard at work on the fourth floor of the warehouse, caged behind a black chain-link fence. These robots don’t have arms or faces. Instead, they look like giant orange hockey pucks.
The robot’s job? To fetch the stuff customers order online.
To do this, they glide around the warehouse and through a labyrinth of thousands of portable storage units. The shelves on those units are crammed with a random assortment of items: books, paper towels, board games.
“I’m seeing some bottles of vitamins -- it looks like there’s some ink cartridges for printers,” Robinson said. “I’m seeing a zombie bobblehead toy up there.”
When the robot finds its storage unit, it glides underneath and lifts it up. Then it delivers it to a human worker who is called a picker.
On the day I was there, a computer told the picker to grab what looked like a fantasy board game. It was on its side and jammed up against the shelf. The picker found it, scanned it and placed it on the conveyor belt.
The robot took the shelf away and up rolled another shelf with another customer's order.
“So in a traditional fulfillment center where the associate would walk to the different items within a library of inventory, it can take hours to fulfill the customer order,” Robinson explained. “With the robotics it can take minutes.”
A job that takes hours now takes minutes and fewer humans. It’s happened with every industrial revolution, and some people say we’re entering another one right now.
Karen Myers is a scientist at SRI, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest research centers. I asked her: What we can expect from this next big shift?
“It’s definitely going to take away a lot of jobs,” Myers said.
At the same time, she says, we’re running up against the limits of technology, too. Take the picker at the Amazon fulfillment center. Myers said those skills are proving to be uniquely human.
“So in computer science there’s a problem called the ‘bin packing problem,’ ” Myers said.
It’s like it sounds: How do you program a robot to recognize a bunch of random objects and then pick up and stow them in a container?
“Our fingers are incredibly dexterous and the current generation of robotic manipulators. They’re getting much, much better,” Myers said. “But they’re just not quite there yet.”
And Myers said artificial intelligence, or the robot’s brain, isn’t up to the task. While artificial intelligence has made amazing advances in recognizing objects, it will take a while before its vision equals humans in the workplace.
For example, remember that board game the Amazon picker was looking for? It was on its side and crammed into the shelf. The picker could barely see the box but she could still tell it was a board game. Myers says robots can’t do that.
And then there’s the human touch. Myers says robots are great at picking up similar items over and over again. But Amazon’s business is to sell every random thing a consumer might want and that poses challenges.
“If you’re going to pick up a box of Kleenex, it’s pretty light. But if you’re trying to pick up a car battery, that’s going to be really heavy,” Myers said. "And how does a robot know that china is fragile but board games aren’t?”
Myers says it will be a long time before a robot has the kind of common sense that humans rely on for these tasks.
“So one of the things we’ve learned is that automation is really good for some things, and humans are good for some things,” Myers said.
Instead of human or machine, technologists believe that we will work more side by side.
“And oftentimes by having a collaborative man-machine type setting, you can get more than just one in isolation,” Myers said.
A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that by 2030, 38 percent of jobs in the U.S. might be taken by automation. In past industrial revolutions, jobs were destroyed but new ones replaced them. Or technology helped industries grow and create jobs.
It’s too early to tell how this industrial revolution is going to play out in the warehousing industry.
Critics say Amazon’s technology is destroying jobs, especially in retail, but the data on that are not clear. Robinson, of Amazon, said what is clear is that Amazon continues to grow.
“I can say that here in our own facility, when we opened it, we thought 1,000 people would be working in this facility,” Robinson said. “Today it’s over 3,000 employees.”
Robinson said robots working with humans enabled the Tracy center to fulfill more customer orders faster. That’s attracted more customers and the need for more human workers.